The [first] generation [language] gap

In which I contemplate whether family affection can really exist with a language barrier.

I dialled my grandparents’ number this morning with apprehension and a familiar nervousness. It was Chinese New Year, and I needed to call to send my good wishes. After a couple rings, my grandma picked up, answering with her characteristic, deadpan Wai? I greeted her with a high pitched, Hello Ma-Ma! (which means grandma — specifically on your father’s side). It’s me, Ling Ling! Sun-leen-fai-lok! [Happy new year!] Sun-tai-geen-hong! [Wishing you good health!] Man-see-yoo-yee! [I have no idea what this means]. I delivered the lines, drilled into memory from childhood, at a rapid-fire rate. We then talked briefly about whether she had dinner plans, being safe in the cold weather, and working hard in school. And then she handed the phone over to my Yai Yai (grandpa on father’s side). Hello Yai Yai!-Sun-leen-fai-lok!-Sun-tai-geen-hong!-Man-see-yoo-yee! Bye bye! After it was over, I looked at the call duration. My heart sunk. 1:58. I couldn’t even hit two minutes. My younger sister texted me later, happily saying that she had hit three.

Despite growing up in an incredibly homogenous (and extremely White) town, I still speak Cantonese fairly fluently. Conversations with my parents are a cobbling together of English and Cantonese, but for the most part there’s little miscommunication. My dad’s side of the family, however, was originally from Shanghai before moving to Hong Kong, so although my Ma Ma and Yai Yai can understand Cantonese perfectly well, when it comes to speaking, they mostly communicate in a Shanghai dialect. A natural consequence of this is that, for the last 23 years, I’ve barely understood a word of what my grandparents are saying to me, despite travelling to Toronto almost every week to visit them. As you might imagine, this feels pretty terrible.

It feels pretty terrible when they speak a string of sentences to me, animatedly with their hands, and I can only stare at them blankly, smile, and nod. It feels pretty terrible when, in frustration, they then shake their heads and mutter to themselves “Eem sik tang ah!” (which means “Doesn’t understand!!”, and ironically, is one of the few phrases I do in fact understand). It feels pretty terrible when I think about all the questions that I’ve always wanted to ask them, but can’t. To Ma Ma: Was it scary immigrating to Canada? What was it like being a kid? Do you remember? What were your parents like? To Yai Yai: How many countries did you travel to as a sailor? Did you have a favourite? Do you ever sing?

Perhaps it’s for this reason that it feels like a goldmine every time my dad or some other family member shares a tidbit of information in passing. Yai Yai drinks a cup of instant coffee every morning. No way! Ma Ma goes on the rowing machine every day. That’s amazing! One year when Ma Ma was young, she got so sick that her hair started falling out. I wish I could ask her about that.

It wasn’t always like this, even if it has been for as long as I can remember. When I occupied myself over winter break by watching hours and hours of home video footage, I was surprised to see a three year old version of myself chattering fluently back and forth with them. I guess I lost it somewhere along the way. It’s a funny thing, knowing so little about someone you care about so much. But it’s also a funny thing, how you can still manage to cultivate a sense of affection and closeness with someone even when your exchanges are so one-sided. But somehow, I think we’re able to do it. We do it through extended hugs (even if they don’t like them). We do it through regular visits. And I suppose we even do it through those 2 minute phone calls.

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My adorable grandparents.

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